Perhaps because of its soaring rhetoric, its noble hopefulness and the stirring cadences of its speaker, award-winning author/illustrator Kadir Nelson reveres the speech the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963.
“Its potency never loses its power,” he says. “It always stops me in my tracks, and I’m not alone in that.”
So in the year of the speech’s 50th anniversary, Nelson has released “I Have a Dream” (Schwarz & Wade Books), a children’s book featuring Nelson’s paintings that illustrate the well-known last third of that speech.
For instance, a black man and a white man, facing one another and looking each other in the eyes, accompany the lines, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
“It’s the most quoted part and the most visual,” Nelson says of the ‘dream’ passages. “Some would argue it’s the most powerful.”
Still, the sum of the words King spoke that day aren’t lost; the book includes the full text of the speech and a CD of the official recording from the March on Washington.
Tackling epic figures and topics isn’t new to Nelson. He’s illustrated books about Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. He wrote and illustrated “Heart and Soul: The Story of American and African Americans” and earlier this year released “Nelson Mandela.”
Nelson, on the phone during a tour stop in San Francisco, says even as a visual artist what lures him to a subject is the story.
“It has to speak to me first. There’s a quote I love by (author) Ntozake Shange, ‘Beauty denies negativity.’ I think one of our most powerful gifts is to transform our environments. King and Mandela speak to that mantra of the human and creative spirit.”
It’s no doubt a heady responsibility to depict King; others found to have fallen short have faced sharp public criticism. The soft-spoken and thoughtful Nelson met the challenge by focusing on the words.
“It’s important that the likeness be accurate to complement the words, to match the power of the words,” he says. “That speech and those words are part of the American lexicon.”
In the end, the King family was pleased, he says.
Now that it’s been released, Nelson’s hopes for the book are humble.
“It would be great to see readers listen to the speech then read the book or read the book and then listen to the speech – either way – and discuss it.”
Johnson Martin: 919-829-4751; twitter.com/amajomartin